There were three coups in three decades (1960, 1971, 1980) and then the so-called post-modern coup d’état that, in 1997, had put an end to the party-led government, thanks to which Erdogan become the mayor of Istanbul at that time. Later, during the early 2000s, coups—known in Turkey by the names of the organisations backing them, Ergenekon or Balyoz—were a constant threat with alleged plots being foiled. These were organisations within the army that also involved the highest ranking officers who were accused of wanting to delegitimise the AKP government’s work, of causing chaos in the country, and of organising coup d’états. Wide scale operations were started against them, arresting generals and commanders as well as politicians, university professors and journalists, such as Ahmet Sik, whose book about Fethullah Gülen (The Imam’s Army, İmamın Ordusu) was banned.
These operations undertaken by the government had an immediate effect in addition to the arrests made. The uproar accompanying them, which was derived above all from the extent of the scandal affecting the army, contributed to the downsizing of the army’s authority and power, sanctioned additionally by constitutional reform approved with the 2010 referendum. Basically, what was significantly reduced was the armed forces ability to influence the political sphere. By abolishing the immunity enjoyed by the officers responsible for the 1980 coup, the armed forces’ judicial autonomy was more generally reduced, restricting the use of military tribunals to crimes committed and imposing the judgement of civilian courts. Furthermore, the revised constitution seemed to resolve the open conflict with the military authorities that had always marked AKP’s policies.
With the onerous political past of a democratic regime that had seemed to exist only thanks to the army’s constant vigilance and intervention, always the bastion of the nation’s secular values and democratic order itself, change was saluted as an important step forward in the country’s democratisation, the sign of a determinative turning point towards the real implementation of a state of law. This was all the result of controversial operations and judicial measures as became clear later when, in more recent years, not only hundreds of people suspected and accused of planning a coup d’état were released over time, but when last April the High Court of Appeal, due to a lack of evidence, even doubted the very existence of the clandestine organisation Ergenekon.
Balyoz, Ergenekon and the Parallel Organisation operation (used only a few weeks ago to issue arrest warrants for police officers accused of belonging to Fethullah Gülen’s organisation, which according to the government is harmfully undermining institutions and plotting against the government) were used as rationale to denounce the permanent existence of organisations belonging to the so-called Deep State, the result of those Stay Behind organisations sponsored by NATO in member states during the years of the Cold War. They also justified the intensification of restrictive measures and the need for an iron fist to guarantee political and economic stability, which also affected the press and civil society when accused of having links with terrorism.
Intrigue and plots are rampant in the AKP’s political history, although no one could have imagined there would be a coup. Initial news reports speaking of F16s flying overhead and bridges over the Bosphorus being closed left people stunned. Some thought these were military exercises aimed at addressing international terrorism and that is also what some of the soldiers said when they surrendered after the coup was foiled. The statement read out on the state television channel TRT, occupied by military personnel early on in the attempted coup, spoke of military intervention aimed at re-establishing democratic order. Old words in a new context: that of a country certainly experiencing a political crisis, accused of authoritarianism, but one that enjoys international recognition and has in recent months launched a new structure in its diplomatic relations.
News reports followed of tanks on the streets and outside Istanbul’s international airport, the same one that was the setting for a tragic terrorist attack at the end of June. The mayor of Ankara, Melih Gökçek, was the first to incite people to take to the streets instead of locking themselves in their homes. The prime minister insisted that this was only mutiny. President Erdogan appeared on the screen of a mobile phone for a first statement made using FaceTime and broadcast by Turkish CNN. And, as the supreme commander, he ordered everyone to take to the streets, accusing a minority of mutiny and of resorting to a parallel organisation and warning them that there would be a high price to pay. In the meantime, the international media reported that he was flying over Europe in search of a country that would give him asylum. The next morning at dawn his plane landed in Istanbul, welcomed by a fanatical crowd. This all happened just before a number of F16s bombed the parliament in Ankara during the night and the coup was foiled. A number of military commanders and soldiers were then arrested. There is footage in circulation depicting soldiers without uniforms handcuffed and on their knees. Other images show them being lynched by those groups who had complied with the president’s request and took to the streets to defend democracy and the fairly elected government.
The former President of the Republic, Abdullah Gül, announced that the next day would be a new day for democracy. In line with these words, at his first press conference held after the long night of the coup, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim did not hesitate to describe July 15th as ‘a festive day for democracy’. Harsh measures against those who participated in the coup were promised while arrests continued. In the afternoon a special parliamentary assembly was summoned while the Supreme Judicial Council was already meeting. After a few hours, the Council suspended 2,745 judges and expelled five. Arrest warrants were also issued for 140 High Court of Appeal judges and 48 members of the State Council. Like the officers who took part in the coup d’état, on a list circulating on social networks, they too are charged with belonging to Fethullah Gülen’s organisation (FETÖ), “a terrorist organisation that is trying to push the country into a war” as Yildirim said, and the official instigator of the coup according to all the official press.
In the meantime the temporary body count is extremely serious with 161 victims (‘martyrs’ in the words of the prime minister), 1,440 wounded and 2,389 soldiers arrested including high ranking officers. By the time evening fell, the dead were 265, of which 124 were described as having taken part in the attempted coup.
All parties represented in parliament immediately distanced themselves, condemning the coup, and in the afternoon presented a joint statement. This is a mark of national unity but is not reassuring considering the levels of polarisation and social division reached in Turkey in the course of the past year and, in particular, following the last general election. The words ‘we have only one flag, only one nation and only one state’, as reiterated by the prime minister, Yildirim, echoes in the ultranationalist vocabulary and certainly caused a large part of the population to tremble. Holding an emergency session, the representatives of the four political parties reiterated the importance of remaining united, and, in particular, the leader of the Kemalist CHP and the spokesperson of the progressive HDP reiterated the need to respect democratic rules and resolve current issues in the country.
And so, while control has, in the meantime, returned to be in the hands of the government, the situation does not seem to be at all encouraging. The Interior Minister believes that people should remain on the streets tonight (July 16th), because, as reiterated by the Defence Minister, while the coup has been foiled, it is too soon to say that the danger has past.
It is, however, mainly angst for the extremely repressive reaction now called for that worries many. There is once again talk of the death penalty, which was abolished in 2004. While for the moment these remain solitary voices, measures implemented in the early hours outline a worrying scenario, with thousands of arrests, not only in the army, but also the police and even the Vice President of the Constitutional Court, Alparslan Altan.
Stability has a price, and it has been clearly seen even just in the course of the past year. In Turkey, it is civil society that pays this price with its freedoms increasingly restricted. While the threat of plots and attempted coups d’état seemed to be sufficient enough to legitimise repressive intervention against fundamental rights, the day after a real and foiled coup one wonders what other costs the country will have to pay in the name of democracy and national unity. All the more so considering that the reassertion of democracy was accompanied by nationalist rhetoric that compared this to the war of independence, one of the founding myths of the Turkish Republic.
Translated by Francesca Simmons